How Sudan Archives Became the Violin’s Domme | The New Yorker

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Stones Throw signed her, and Sudan soon became known for her looping technique. “I don’t have the flexing personality,” she told me, “but I can do some crazy-ass shit.” In the mid-twenty-tens, Angelenos in the D.I.Y. community likely noticed a young woman dragging her equipment around town. “It was very stripped-down. Loop, pedal, violin set,” Matthewdavid remembers. The spectacle, if there was one, was rooted in watching her trigger her gear, re-creating the act of making music live, even if it made her vulnerable to error.

Constitutionally, Sudan is a bedroom producer. She spent these years forming the basis of her production style: the merging of folk elements with electronic music. No song better exemplifies this than the light and springy “Come Meh Way.” The song is a multicultural clash: she sings, in a slight Caribbean accent, over tambourines, handclaps, and an Irish jig—the precocious arranger as tourist. Nearly six years later, it remains Sudan’s most popular track.

“Athena” saw the musician become darker and more compelling, as she drew on her ecclesiastical life. Here she introduced her harshness, alarming her listeners as much as she soothed them. Although she still headed most of the production, she also worked with producers such as Rodaidh McDonald, who has collaborated with King Krule and the XX. It was hard for Sudan, working with other people. As she told Rolling Stone, “ ‘Athena’ was me in the studio feeling awkward, like, why am I here?” For “Natural Brown Prom Queen,” which was written in quarantine, Sudan’s manager devised a different system: she’d send her ideas to him, and he would then forward them to other producers. They would add their ideas, and he’d send them back to Sudan. It was a collaboration that allowed her to retain control.

At Wi Spa, a twenty-four-hour Korean spot in downtown Los Angeles, customers can soak naked on certain floors. I met Sudan there at the end of May, in the small break between her touring gigs: spring had been spent supporting Polachek, and summer would be spent up and down the other hemisphere, hitting Western and Eastern Europe, Australia, and Japan. Sudan and I went to our locker rooms, undressed, put on robes. We met at the skin-care kiosk, where we bought Advil and pimple patches. It was James McCall, her boyfriend, who thought the spa would be a good idea, as it would relax her. (McCall, one of the founders of Low End Theory, is a producer and a musician, formerly known as Nocando, who now uses the stage name All City Jimmy.) We entered the sauna and disrobed, from a distance. Either she or I made a joke about our “tramp stamp” lower-back tattoos.

We appraised each other. “We’re on an even playing field,” Sudan said, letting out peals of laughter. “Now that we’ve seen each other’s titties.”

We scrubbed off the day’s grime and then surveyed the pools. We draped masks over our faces and struggled to hear each other above the gust in the aromatherapy room. Sudan barely lasted more than three or four minutes in each room. She moved quickly, exhibiting a low tolerance for stasis; I found myself subtly chasing her around the spa. We ended with a vein-constricting plunge into the cold-water basin, and headed upstairs to the common area, dripping water in the elevator. Plopping herself on a mat, Sudan produced a bushel of perm rods, and began twisting her locs into curlicues. She wanted to look like “Black Medusa” in advance of a show she was doing that weekend, in Napa Valley. Onlookers gazed at her curiously. She met the stares with an aggressive smile.

She brought up Zxari admiringly: “People like that can’t do what she was doing.” People “like that” being people who were classically trained. Sudan is a hyperbolist. She speaks in absolutes that both entertain and confound, in order to make up for not feeling, as she has said, at home with words. So when she says, summarily, “Music theory is so white. Africans just play music,” and then, minutes later, extolls players such as Asim Gorashi and Francis Bebey for their technical brilliance, she maintains the contradiction by relying on emotional meaning that I recognize. She does not actually hate the West. She has called herself the Black Stravinsky, drawn to the “punkness” of the one who had been part of Les Apaches. “The Russian composers be on some other shit,” she said, approvingly. “But I’m not trying to be here in a white blouse and black pants, sitting down.”

Because she has not needed to shed a period of indoctrination, Sudan is different from the Black American artists who make work in reaction to the canon. I have had the sensation, listening to her music, of being jarred by the emergence of a riff, which seems placed just because it can be. That excess is the right of the virtuoso, who regards her art as an eminently conquerable field. Lyrically, Sudan is less drawn to showmanship. She is a sentimentalist who writes in the conditional tense. “If I wear it straight, would they like me more?” she sings, on the song “Selfish Soul.” Sudan is able to seem both vulnerable and cipher-like. She can recall the conservative soul queen, who struggles to navigate her self-worth and her public politicization; she can also be the modern playgirl, who fetishizes herself first.

As she finished up her hair, Sudan recalled being tagged in an Internet comment about “that Ariana Grande song, the one with the strings.” It was “Positions,” from 2020. The commenter, a vigilant Sudan fan, had expressed concern that “Positions” sounded like “Nont for Sale,” a paean from Sudan’s second EP, about not selling out romantically or artistically. “I was, like, I hope so,” Sudan told me. The Ariana Grande track excited her. She imagines a future in which a Rolodex of pop stars come to her door, asking her to produce for them with her kink touch.

Sudan had been wavering on whether she would allow me to visit her home studio. In the end, she gave in. After our visit to the spa, she called a Lyft, and we piled into the car. “Brittney?” the driver asked. I turned to her. When was she Sudan, and when was she Brittney? “It’s just hard to change on the app,” she replied, waving the question away. And yet Sudan is clearly reluctant to kill Britt, as the name links her with her twin, who now lives part time in L.A., and with whom she sometimes writes music. The act of renaming can expand an identity every bit as much as it can narrow it. When I asked Sudan how she thought about her name, given this period of war and displacement in the country of Sudan, she said that she had considered changing her stage name. (The political “scares her,” McCall told me.)

Sudan wanted a smoothie. She and the Lyft driver proceeded to have a very Los Angeles conversation about juicing and bulking. Sudan lamented turning thirty in January, and promised herself and the driver that she would have the new album—her trap phase, as she called it—nearly done by her next birthday.

We walked into her apartment. The couch was low to the floor, and the living room smelled faintly of stale sage. Junko, her puppy, bounded over, scratching my shins. Sudan led me to the basement, around back, where she and McCall had built the studio. (The two have a working romance; he writes lyrics and helps with production.) “My landlords are two wives,” Sudan said, as she opened the door. “Cool as fuck. ’Cause they’re queer and not racist. I feel like they know I’m poppin’, which is why they never raise the rent.”

The space was cluttered and slightly musty. “I told you I needed to clean it,” Sudan said, by way of apology. The studio had been her haven during the pandemic; she and McCall installed Astroturf and hung artificial flowers to simulate nature. “It was super-humid, and it had a bug problem,” she said of the basement. “I got this dehumidifier here and saged the place every day.” On her keyboard stand, there was a music-theory book, turned upside down. On the floor, there were suitcases and boxes overflowing with leatherwear and acetate high heels. Goldie, her pet snake, was coiled in its tank. On the walls hung her various violins. “This is the six-thousand-dollar one,” she said. “I know it don’t even look like it.”

She picked up a seashell from the floor and put it to my nose. “Stinks, doesn’t it?” McCall and Sudan had just come from a trip to Tijuana. “If I could just figure out a way to make more money,” she said, sighing. “Maybe I should make more pop stuff so I could move exactly where I want to go.”

When she was stuck in Los Angeles, during the pandemic, Sudan found herself homesick for Cincinnati, a place that she loves but in which she cannot bear to live. There is a plainness of feeling, on “Natural Brown Prom Queen,” for the pre-Sudan life, which has expanded the audience of people who can potentially feel “seen” by her sometimes heady music. “Being an artist,” she said, “you have to be a narcissist. It’s not about me. It’s the idea of me.”

A car pulled up at the back of the house. McCall and his eleven-year-old daughter, Violet, came in excitedly, having spent a day with family at the beach. McCall sized me up. “It’s good to see a Black journalist,” he said. “Usually, they send fat old white dudes.”

Violet regaled us with her account of an altercation between a beach reveller and a security guard. “They was fighting!” she told Sudan. “Fighting,” Sudan murmured, coming into her stepmother mode.

“One of them started talking about his Glock,” Violet said, “which means gun.”

Sudan shot McCall a look of concern. He assured her, “He said he had an AK in the car. He didn’t have no car.”

All Sudan wanted to do was stay in Los Angeles a little while longer. The sight of father and daughter made the woman who was eager to pack for a tour somewhat forlorn. She looked at the mess of clothes around her. “I feel like, if I clean this whole place up, I’ll write a song.” ♦

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